TV’s futile struggle to explain Sept. 11 attack

Nov 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

This many weeks later, with the Taliban in retreat in Afghanistan, smoke still rises from the devastation where the World Trade Center stood. Where thousands died, the fire still lives. They died in offices, coffee shops, corridors and stores; at their desks, at their computers and at water coolers. Bankers, messengers, lawyers, busboys, bond traders, secretaries.
And the people in the airplanes, moving between the coasts for their private reasons-business, family, amusement, a friend’s funeral, a research project. Thousands. Unaware. Unprepared. Surprised. Killed.
There were heroes that day, and many of them are among the dead. But mainly the thousands who died were the most ordinary of people, doing mundane things. Even at the end, they did not know they were an enemy. They wore no uniforms and bore no arms. They had no training for this, had taken no oaths.
The outrage of Pearl Harbor was visited on fighting ships, on sailors and admirals. There were air raid sirens-and at least some return fire. The World Trade Center was built for pursuits of peace, for commerce, for human interaction. Its buildings were unfortified; there were no gun positions on the roofs.
It is too early to forget all that-or, as we strive for normality, to move it to the edges. Part of this striving has been a hunger for “explanation” of what happened, as though understanding what motivated those who did this thing would make it more palatable. Explanation is worthwhile if it aims at understanding. But so much of the drumbeat for explanation that followed what happened that black day seems to me a way of hiding from its enormity.
Missing the point
Within only days of the event, Newsday ran a piece by leftish media “watchdog” Danny Schechter entitled “Good video gets in way of real news.” Mr. Schechter, who New York magazine calls an “alternative news legend,” wrote, “We need smarter coverage, not those graphic home videos. Missing from much of the news is analysis of why those killers did what they did and what they hoped to gain.”
A certain Steve Randall, whose job is senior analyst for the New York-based media monitor FAIR-Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting-asked, in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Where are the experts on international law? The peace experts? You might think that’s a joke, but there are people who study these things as seriously as war.”
John McManus, who works for a Web site that monitors Bay area media, told the Chronicle that TV coverage was doing “the ideological dirty work of the administration.”
Mr. Randall said, “We need historians to explain why resentment of the United States runs so deep in the Middle East.”
McManus said, “There is still a dismissal on the part of the press that the Arab world has legitimate grievances against the United States.”
All this, mind you, in the first days and hours after the event-before we were even sure who “they” were. And it has continued. There have been teach-ins on college campuses, special sessions in high schools, and on the 24/7 all-news cable channels, once news started thinning out, experts of all shades expounding and answering telephone callers. Explaining, explaining, explaining.
They explained backgrounds and histories of Middle Eastern conflicts, Islam as a religion, tribal animosities. Things became clearer and clearer. We could finally answer the question in Newsweek’s cover story: “Why do they hate us?” But no one explained how human beings became so twisted that they destroyed thousands of lives of other human beings whom they did not know-and who may or may not have been part of whatever they hated.
Explaining is a tricky business. Madame de Stael, a very smart French lady who survived their revolution by being quotable, pointed out that explaining everything runs the risk of excusing everything. That would be even worse than merely hiding from the enormity of the atrocity of Sept. 11.
Back in the ’30s, important and accomplished people, especially in England, explained the rise of Nazism by the Treaty of Versailles. Its vengeful impositions on an already defeated Germany created economic upheaval, destroyed the middle class and begat a society ripe for any demagogue who would restore national power and self-respect. All of which was true-and perhaps helped understand how Adolf Hitler came out of nowhere to such a pinnacle of power. It did not explain Buchenwald.
Beyond comprehension
American troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia, tribal animosities between Pashtuns and Tajiks, McDonald’s hamburgers and acid rock, whoever your explainer and whatever he explains, no explanation explains why thousands died in fire so hot it melted and twisted heavy structural steel and destroyed most bodies so that not even pieces will be found.
There was recently a memorial service at the site, to which survivors of those who died were invited. Most who came brought photographs of the husband, sister, daughter, father they had lost. After the service, each got a bowl of dirt from the site as a keepsake of the loved one destroyed that terrible Tuesday. There was always the chance that something of that loved one was in the dirt.
A bowl of dirt. Explain a bowl of dirt.